The Transformative Power of Centering Prayer
Opening Minds, Opening Hearts Podcast Season 2 Episode 1 with Colleen Thomas and Mark Dannenfelser
“Centering Prayer is more than a meditation practice, it’s a transformational experience. I think that’s something that draws me to the prayer. At the heart is the relationship with the divine that transforms us. Centering Prayer is the divine therapy and the teaching takes us through the process of how we are being changed. It’s revolutionary.” - Colleen Thomas
Welcome back to season two of Opening Minds, Opening Hearts. We are your hosts, Colleen Thomas and Mark Dannenfelser and our hope this season is to open the door for you to explore more deeply this powerful practice of Centering Prayer. This season we will be having conversations framed by one of Thomas Keeting’s guiding principles:
“Contemplative Outreach is an evolving community with an expanding vision and deepening practice of Centering Prayer that serves the changing needs of Christian contemplatives.”In the twelve episodes of this season of Opening Minds, Opening Hearts, we will draw from a deep well of contemplatives and unpack this principle with guests who are involved in the evolving contemplative community.
- We will explore the rich history of Contemplative Outreach by talking to people who have spent time at the monastery in Snowmass and hear their stories of the Contemplative Outreach community and Father Thomas in those early years.
- We hope to deepen the practice of Centering Prayer by exploring the transformative experience that is the fruit of the practice and deepen our relationships with ourselves, others, and God.
- We will also discuss the expanding and evolving community of contemplatives and how we can better serve their changing needs and reach younger contemplatives as well as people who are marginalized and oppressed.
“Father Thomas gave us a simple, practical, and radical way to cultivate this type of prayer and because of it, he’s in the line of contemplation that goes back to the desert mothers and fathers of the third and fourth centuries.” - Mark Dannenfelser
To learn more about Father Thomas Keating’s guidelines for service and principles visit www.contemplativeoutreach.org/vision
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Season 2 of Opening Minds, Opening Hearts was made possible by a grant from the Trust for the Meditation Process, a charitable foundation encouraging meditation, mindfulness and contemplative prayer.This episode of Opening Minds, Opening Hearts is produced by Crys & Tiana LLC www.crysandtiana.com
Opening Minds, Opening Hearts EP #1: The Transformative Power of Centering Prayer with Colleen Thomas and Mark Dannenfelser [cheerful music starts] Colleen Thomas [00:00:02] Welcome to Opening Minds, Opening Hearts, a podcast about the transformative practice of Centering Prayer. In each episode, we will talk to Friends of Contemplative Outreach about their personal practice. Listen in as our guests share insights about the teachings of Father Thomas Keating, how the practice impacts their work in the world, and their thoughts about how Centering Prayer connects to the living traditions of contemplation and meditation. We are your hosts, Colleen Thomas. Mark Dannenfelser [00:00:35] And Mark Dannenfelser. Colleen Thomas [00:00:36] Centering Prayer practitioners and contemplative life seekers who love to talk a little too much about how the practice of contemplative prayer transforms our inner and outer worlds. Our hope is to open the door for you to explore more deeply this powerful practice of Centering Prayer. [cheerful music ends] Colleen Thomas [00:00:58] Welcome to season two of the Contemplative Outreach Podcast, Opening Minds, Opening Hearts. I am one of your co-hosts, Colleen Thomas. Mark Dannenfelser [00:01:10] And I'm the other co-host, Mark Dannenfelser. It's good to be with you again, Colleen, for this season two. Colleen Thomas [00:01:17] It is. Can you believe it? Mark Dannenfelser [00:01:19] Can't believe it. And I'm excited about this season coming up, and once we started season one, we weren't sure we were going to make it through it. Colleen Thomas [00:01:24] I know it was a lot of work, and I won't name names. Did you see, we just got an email from someone that we consulted with when we were talking about how to get this podcast off and running, and he said, yep, my podcast is on a permanent sabbatical. Mark Dannenfelser [00:01:47] It's very hard to produce what we hope is a good quality podcast, but it's also a great joy to be meeting and getting reacquainted with so many different people in and around this Contemplative Outreach Community. Contemplative Outreach has been around a long time, so we're drawing from this deep well of contemplatives. Colleen Thomas [00:02:06] One of the things that was so exciting and really inspiring from last season was everyone we talked to was so grateful to us for having these conversations. I remember that being a theme. There's just so much gratitude that we're talking about Centering Prayer. Mark Dannenfelser[00:02:29] Yeah. And one of the things that struck me as well last season was this extraordinary work that has been going on for so long because of one of the key founders of Contemplative Outreach, Thomas Keating. There were a lot of our guests from last season who clearly had a sense of gratitude for either knowing Thomas directly or knowing his work and being exposed to his work. I just got in touch with the richness of all that. And I think that's something I'm looking forward to in this season as well, is talking to more people who, in some form or another, have been exposed to the practice of Centering Prayer and the work of Thomas Keating. Colleen Thomas [00:03:11] Father Thomas is definitely under recognized, I think in the broader contemplative community. I find that most people are more familiar with the very well-known monk, Thomas Merton. Even people who would not identify as contemplatives. I was just reading a book, a classic by Bell Hooks, and she's got Thomas Merton quotes throughout, along with Rainer Maria Rilke. It's like Thomas Merton made it into the mainstream culture. And he was a contemporary of Father Thomas Keating too. Because these are men from two different eras. But somehow Father Thomas was really known, mostly in his monastic community, and then the community of Contemplative Outreach that was founded to support his teachings and carry the tradition of the prayer beyond the monastery walls. Mark Dannenfelser [00:04:22] Merton, of course, has a special place in our hearts because he introduced us to what was really these monastic communities that we really didn't have that much access to. And he opened that up for us through his writings, writing from the monastery. And that at the time was quite new in terms of the depth of that sharing of that experience. And it really was Keating who then picked up on that, particularly after Merton died. And then he was the one who said, well, people are interested in this, so how do we help them to practise it in a simple way? How can we introduce what this contemplative prayer is all about? And that's how Centering Prayer came about. He said, there's just a few steps to do it. You sit down, turn your own will and care over to God and just sit with that. And that was radical. But Keating really gave us a real simple and practical way to cultivate this type of prayer. And that's his great gift. And then because of it, he's in the line of that tradition of contemplation that goes all the way back to the desert mothers and fathers in the third and fourth centuries. You know. Colleen Thomas [00:05:38] You know what's so interesting is that Merton went east and actually died in the east. I can't remember the country he was in when he died, but he finally got released or got permission to leave the monastery and travel abroad. And he never came home. And he was exploring very much in relationship and conversation with spiritual teachers from the eastern tradition, the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. And it's almost like the energy swung back towards the US and that's how Father Thomas came to this place of recognizing that there was this huge seeking of eastern prayer and meditation that had its own place in the history of the Christian tradition. So the story goes, I want to share this for people who don't know and aren't familiar with Father Thomas, is that while he was at his original monastery in Massachusetts, Spencer, there was a nearby Buddhist monastery. And apparently young kids were mistakenly coming to Father Thomas's monastery in Spencer and looking for the Buddhist monastery. And he and some of his brothers there became aware that, hey, these young kids want to meditate. They want to experience monastic life and they're going to the Buddhist monastery. But we do the same thing here, essentially. And it was this big revelation in the seventies after the Beatles went east and brought back transcendental meditation and the whole hippie movement that there was a deep spiritual hunger that the Christian Church was not responding to because the tradition of contemplative prayer had remained closed within monastery walls. And Father Thomas opened the door of the monastery to the common world, essentially, and in a way packaged ancient prayer tradition that looks and acts very much like eastern forms of meditation and called it Centering Prayer. And here we are. Mark Dannenfelser [00:08:21] Yeah. And it seems too that he was already sort of feeling this desire or maybe call to share this, to open up the treasure chest of the Christian contemplative tradition or continue opening that up, but then really wanting to share it. And so that's where he starts. They simplify the whole instruction about what it is. And then he immediately starts thinking, and we're talking about now the late seventies into the early eighties, and then he starts thinking about, well, how can I share this? And by the mid eighties, he's doing these retreats and inviting people. So suddenly now you're opening up these retreat centers and monasteries for people to come and try this prayer. And then of course, the whole Contemplative Outreach as an organization develops from that. And now you have small prayer groups doing Centering Prayer all around the world. And this was his true gift, I think, from my perspective to the world, was to not just be talking about it, but inviting all of us into it; that we could have a direct experience of God in this way. Colleen Thomas [00:09:35] And you're working on the Archive Project. Do you know how many books Father Thomas wrote? Mark Dannenfelser [00:09:43] We're still finding some. And the archive now, which is going to be at Emory University here in Atlanta, it's mostly digital, so it's something like seven terabytes now it's gigantic. His work. And a lot of those are his books, but he's written so many other things too, articles, and there are videotapes and all kinds of things. So, but yeah, we're collecting and more books are being written or rewritten or re-released. And so it's a lot. I'd have to go back and look, but- Colleen Thomas [00:10:12] It's a lot. Yeah. Mark Dannenfelser [00:10:13] More than 30 for sure. Colleen Thomas [00:10:14] More than 30, yeah, that's my point is like this man wrote so much and is still, like I said, relatively unknown in larger contemplative circles, especially across faith traditions. But before I go there, I wanted to also note he was so media savvy too, because he recorded all of these talks that was really, really smart and really, really forward thinking in the eighties. And we laugh about it sometimes because this video archive it's so dated now, you know, to look back at young Father Thomas standing out in the valley at Snowmass talking about the method of Centering Prayer and the human condition and, but what a gift that he left us this rich library of not just books, but also videos and teaching with his flip charts. And- Mark Dannenfelser [00:11:19] Yeah, he is got these flip charts on an easel with the bad magic marker and he is going through. Yeah. But yeah, it's clear that he's on a mission. He sees the value of this and he wants to share it, not for his own gain, but so he's immediately collecting that material so that it can be distributed to people and is empowering all of us too, to understand it ourselves and then just practice it. Many people individually practicing it in their own homes, but also these small groups that emerge, that become the Contemplative Outreach. But yes, it's very clear that he's driven by that desire to share the prayer. Colleen Thomas [00:12:03] Yeah, to share the prayer, which is also so much more than just a meditation practice, right? It's a transformation experience. And that's something that I think that drew me to the prayer and continues to draw me to Centering Prayer, despite the many, now, many options for ways to practice meditation and stillness and silence. But at the heart of Centering Prayer is this relationship with the divine that transforms us. And so when Father Thomas talks about Centering Prayer as the divine therapy, and then we have the gift of his teaching that really takes us through this process of how we are being changed from the inside out by the prayer. It's really revolutionary. [solemn music plays] Mark Dannenfelser[00:13:17] In the Christian tradition, Contemplative Prayer is the opening of your mind and heart to God who is beyond thoughts, words, and emotions. Centering Prayer is a method designed to facilitate contemplation. The method suggests four guidelines. One, choose a sacred word as the symbol of your intention to consent to God's presence and action within you. Two, sit comfortably and relatively still close your eyes or leave them slightly open and silently introduce your sacred word. Three, when you notice you have become engaged with a thought, simply return ever so gently to your sacred word. And four, at the end of the 20-minute prayer period, let go of the sacred word and remain in silence for a couple of minutes. The additional time invites you to bring the atmosphere of silence into everyday life. [solemn music ends] Mark Dannenfelser [00:14:26] It is this relationship that is not all about us. There's this fundamental aspect of the relationship that says, just kind of let your own stuff be for a while and just let God take over in Centering Prayer terms called consenting to God that we're letting go. There's so much letting go in it that I really prefer to have my life go this way. But I'm not totally in charge of that. And I don't mean that in a way that we don't have any responsibility for our own lives, but when it comes to the deepening of the spiritual life, we have to sometimes get out of the way a little bit. And so that's the thing, over and over, we sit there and we have this sacred word that just reminds us, it's not a mantra, but it just reminds us each time I'm getting carried away in my own stuff, thoughts or emotions, whatever it is, to just turn it back over to God just for this time that I'm sitting. And that's quite difficult at times, but it's a huge act of faith that it will be okay somehow, even if I don't have a way of knowing exactly how. Colleen Thomas [00:15:32] That's what the experience of having a direct encounter with God, which, you know, you were talking about a little bit, well, we were talking about a little bit that when we allow ourselves to be present in that way, because it's a relationship and because in our tradition we believe that God is a living active being, not human being, but a force and energy that is alive, that Father Thomas called the ultimate reality. That being in relationship with this ultimate reality, we will be changed. We may not experience that in a 20 minute sit, but over time and practice of consenting to that ultimate reality, stuff happens. Mark Dannenfelser [00:16:27] Stuff happens. And you know, we're going to hear about that this season from our guests. And because we're exploring so Contemplative Outreach as an organization has this overall vision. And much of this was the work of Father Thomas to sharpen our vision about what we're doing here and where it's all going. And so there are these principles and guidelines that we use a lot to help remind us. And we're going to unpack one of those this season. And it's about this idea that the contemplative community is this growing, expanding, evolving community. It is about going deeper into the practice and how that both connects us and also opens us up and expands us so that we're more aware too of the needs of the world. Colleen Thomas [00:17:18] Now, he calls them theological principles, which theology in a nutshell really just means like what we believe. It's the basis of our belief in the experience of this prayer, right? As maybe. Yeah. Mark Dannenfelser [00:17:36] And you know what you were saying before about this idea of God as ultimate reality of this God, of everything, you know, of all things and of our whole life. And that we're in relationship with that God, that it's both intimate and also expansive. So it's not just between me and God, I can't have God all to myself, but also that in a sense, and this is in some of these materials, some of these principles and guidelines, that it's non-hierarchical to the relationship, even though, well, I don't mean to be on the level of God, but there's an intimacy there. And we express that in these principles in terms of how we try to function in our structure in Contemplative Outreach and also in our lives. But that it's not always just about this kind of top down thing that I remember early on when I did some of the training for myself in Centering Prayer and all. I remember that one of the examples about the prayer was like, you're walking on the beach side by side with God. That's that kind of intimacy. And so it's not just God is up there somewhere in the clouds and I'm down here. And that was really like a major change for me in my own spiritual life to understand that God is not some distant thing, but is as close as our own being, our own breath. Colleen Thomas [00:19:07] I was just talking about this yesterday in a meeting with a group of contemplatives and spiritual directors about that stage of transformation where suddenly God, who unfortunately through our religious upbringing sets up this relationship where God is out there and I am over here and definitely lower, God is high up there. And the huge gift of contemplative practice is that reorientation to an awareness of God within. And in my facilitating, Centering Prayer practice in groups now, I always begin with inviting us to become aware of how we are seated in our chair and invite our awareness to our bodies because we are actually consenting with our whole being because within these bodies, God does reside. Mark Dannenfelser [00:20:23] Yeah. And that it's a mystery. And that I wasn't taught that early on, but it was, like I said, it was a separation almost that was emphasised. I don't think it was necessarily intentional and that it was only what I could understand or believe whatever belief system was there, that that was the limit. And now there's this invitation to enter into something that's much bigger than I can totally conceive of and totally experience. But part as you say, you know, part of that is it's everything. It's in everything this God of ours, and it's within us, not outside of us, it's in our own bodies. I heard some of that teaching early on in terms of Jesus as the incarnation. So it kind of hinted at that, but I didn't think that applied to me that God dwells inside of me and you and all of us and the created world. I've heard the line once in a while that maybe this was a Catholic thing, I don't know. But that the first Bible was creation that God has expressed in the world. That was really a big shift. And it's something I still try to absorb now in my day-to-day life. God and all. Colleen Thomas [00:21:33] The incarnation was not just Mary's experience, but something else you were talking about too. You know, it's like this experience of God in us, God in you, God in me, but also this experience of God in everyone. And when I look at the vision of Contemplative Outreach, it says we embrace the process of transformation in Christ, both in ourselves and in others through the practice of Centering Prayer. I grew up very fundamentalist evangelical, and I certainly saw when I started practising Centering Prayer in my mid twenties, I know the transformative power of the practice because the way my relationship to others changed was dramatic. Because growing up as a fundamentalist evangelical, there's so much judgement and disregard for the other. And the first noticeable fruit for me wasn't like a sense of deep inner peace. It was compassion for others, compassion for creation, recognizing the earth as God's, and even needing to care for her. Mark Dannenfelser [00:23:01] Yeah. And it's funny, you know, because I grew up Catholic and my parents, they got married in the fifties and soon started having children. And then Vatican II hit in early sixties and they just took to it, it opened up the top of their head and one of the things it did for them is they felt this invitation to take on their own direct relationship with God, their own experience of God and their own faith. And so they really were into serving the needs of the world somehow. And that took mostly the form of them taking in foster children. I think that's what's going to be interesting. Certainly it's exciting for me. I know you and I have talked about this a lot about some of these guests that we're inviting in this season who are all in some form or another, praying in this contemplative way and using Centering Prayer so that they can go out into the world in a certain way too. And in a variety of ways we're going to hear too. And that's very exciting for me because it's inspiring to know that people are doing this. And this wasn't just some crazy scheme that my parents had. Colleen Thomas [00:24:14] Isn't there a connection? See, I didn't grow up Catholic. So you said Vatican II, I don't know a lot about that history. And I mean, we don't need like a super deep history lesson, but I thought there was a connection to Father Thomas and Vatican II as well, and how Vatican II also impacted his work in the world. Mark Dannenfelser [00:24:37] It did, yeah, because it was this gigantic meeting in Rome where the Pope called and said basically we're calling a Council so that we can open up the windows and doors of the church. And it was very much the clerics. And so now we're opening it up and to get some fresh air in. And it started looking at, yeah, how do we change our language? How do we make things more accessible? And the Pope at the time, one of the things that he did was he invited monks, the Abbotts, you know, the kind of the head guy in the monastery, the head monk to come to Rome. And Thomas Keating was an Abbott at the time. And so he went and what he said was, you guys are the keepers of the contemplative tradition in Christianity. It's in the monasteries, but we need to get it out and we need to get it to people. So he kind of charged them with going back to their monasteries and figuring out a way to bring this to people to just every day lay people. And Keating took that very seriously, went back to his monastery and talked to some of his monks there. And William Meninger and Basil Pennington in particular, the three of them kind of grouped up and they found a way to describe this deep tradition of contemplative prayer in a simple way so that we could all kind of not only understand it, but practise it. And that was what Centering Prayer was. And so, yeah, so that's started it all really. Colleen Thomas [00:26:10] That connection, because I'm looking at these, the vision transformation in Christ, both in ourselves and in others, the theological principles which says, this is what we believe. And then there are the guidelines for Contemplative Outreach Service. So it's almost like I can see this thread between the theological principles. This is what we believe, now how do we serve the world? How do we act on these beliefs out into the world? Which brings us to this season, right? Because we are actually exploring just the very first one of these guidelines for Contemplative Outreach Service and for anyone who's listening and interested, if you go to Contemplative Outreach.org/vision, you can see these principles, the theological principles and the guidelines for service. The guideline for service we're exploring says this, Contemplative Outreach is an evolving community with an expanding vision and deepening practice of Centering Prayer that serves the changing needs of Christian contemplatives. And there's some commentary that supports that, and maybe we'll circle back to that. But we thought for this season, we would focus on this one principle and look at the evolving community. What's the history of Contemplative Outreach? How did it come to be? And talking with people who have spent time at the monastery in Snowmass and talking to them both about the Contemplative Outreach community in those early years, and also who Father Thomas Keating was in those early years. And then the second aspect of this guideline is the deepening practice of Centering Prayer, which you and I have talked quite a bit about this transformative experience that is the fruit of the practice. And there are so many people that we admire and respect, and one in particular that I even happen to love, who's a good friend of mine who's going to talk about the ways in which Centering Prayer deepens our relationship with ourselves and others and God. Mark Dannenfelser [00:28:42] And so we have some beautiful guests who will speak to that too, that this is an ever changing thing. The more it expands and evolves out, the more it includes everyone in every aspect in every corner of the world. And so how do we respond and how do we support those changing needs? Colleen Thomas [00:29:01] Right. And that's particular, that last movement for us, the changing needs is particularly important for Contemplative Outreach right now, approaching 40 years of its existence in the world, perhaps Contemplative Outreach, who is maybe in the final stages of grief at the loss of Father Thomas Keating. And so we're really exploring in this movement, who do we want to invite into our community right now of Contemplative Outreach who may not be as present as we would like to be? And this was important to Father Thomas too. And when you read the principles and the guidelines, it's very clear that Father Thomas was deeply, deeply invested in sharing the prayer with everyone, including people of different faith traditions, including people who care for the marginalized and the oppressed. So we're going to talk with guests about how does the prayer impact their relationships in interspiritual and interfaith communities? How are the needs of younger contemplatives, contemplatives, millennials and younger? And how are they responding to the prayer? What are our unique needs in this digital era? People of color who are not as present in contemplative spaces as we would like them to be, and yet contemplative prayer and monastic practice really does have its origins in North African desert spirituality. How do we reach people in marginalised communities? And I'm really excited to continue these conversations, make new friends with our guests. Mark Dannenfelser [00:31:00] Yeah, I can't wait to begin and I am looking forward to having all these conversations and we've got a 12 episode season coming up, so we really have some time to really settle in. And of course, it's always a great joy to do that with you as we've been lucky enough to be co-hosts on this podcast. Can't wait to dive in. Colleen Thomas [00:31:21] Yeah, me too. And it's great to share this first episode with you all, just us giving you a little bit of an insight into what happens when Mark and I get on the phone or on Zoom on a regular day. We would have a conversation just like this, except now, this is our first episode of season two, and we can't wait for you to keep tuning in and hear from the folks who've agreed to be in conversation with us. [solemn music starts] Mark Dannenfelser [00:31:52] Well, Colleen, I will see you and I will see all of you on Opening Minds, Opening Hearts. Colleen Thomas [00:31:58] Thanks for joining us on this episode of Opening Minds, Opening Hearts. Visit our website contemplativeoutreach.org to subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and wherever else you listen to podcasts. You can also follow us on Instagram @contemplativeoutreachLtd. To learn more about our guests and their work, you can find info in the show notes for each episode. If you enjoyed this episode, you might want to check out our YouTube channel: C-O-U-T-R-E-A-C-H. Coutreach. Thanks for listening and see you next time. Season 2 of Opening Minds, Opening Hearts was made possible by a grant from the Trust for the Meditation Process, a charitable foundation encouraging meditation, mindfulness and contemplative prayer.” To find out more about the foundation, go to: trustformeditation.org, that’s: trustformeditation.org If you are a grateful listener and would like to support this podcast, go to: contemplativeoutreach.org/podcast to make a donation of any amount. That’s: contemplativeoutreach.org/podcast Thank you for your support! This episode of Opening Minds, Opening Hearts is produced by Crys & Tiana. [solemn music ends]